Suffice to state that for a new beginning the outstanding problems must be dealt with most judiciously, and the sensitive and
emergent issue of transit/transhipment/transit corridor negotiated with due legal/ administrative and numerous other
considerations, writes Professor Dilara Choudhury.
emergent issue of transit/transhipment/transit corridor negotiated with due legal/ administrative and numerous other
considerations, writes Professor Dilara Choudhury.
DHAKA eagerly awaits the upcoming summit of the Indian prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in September 6-7, during which compressive and landmark treaties are expected to be signed, encompassing the resolution of outstanding irritants like border management problems, water sharing of common rivers, huge trade imbalance, etc.
Here in Dhaka, the general feeling is that Dhaka has already done its part and has gone out of the way to please India to improve Indo-Bangladesh ties. Actually, the efforts started very early and during the heydays of Indo-Bangladesh relations (1972-75), beginning from the return of Berubari in 1974, and consenting to allow India to test the feeder canal of the Farakka barrage, which led to its unilateral withdrawal of Ganges water, but in return Bangladesh only faced Indian intransigence.
These are not polemics. Look at the records.
It did not honour the promised lease of Tin Bigha corridor in perpetuity, connecting Bangladeshi enclaves Dahagram and Angarpota with Bangladeshi mainland, on the plea that it needed constitutional amendment, which supposedly prevented the ratification of the 1974 Land and Border Treaty, and its subsequent reluctance to address other issues, especially the sharing of common rivers water and rectification of the staggering trade imbalance. Delhi, on the other hand, accused Bangladesh of non-cooperative attitude. Taking that alleged fact into consideration, recently, Dhaka acted swiftly to meet New Delhi’s two important demands. First, the arrest and handover of north-eastern insurgents hiding in Bangladesh, to Indian authorities, enabling New Delhi to hold peace talks with the insurgents; and second, granting of transit/transhipment/transport corridor to New Delhi to its almost landlocked north-eastern provinces during the Delhi summit of 2010. Both are extremely crucial for India’s national security concerns as well as accruing hefty economic benefits.
Expectations in Dhaka, thus, are that it is now India’s turn to reciprocate, and do it in line with SAARC and Gujral Doctrine. However, the fact that as many as five chief ministers of Indian provinces bordering Bangladesh are on the prime minister’s entourage indicates that New Delhi, this time, hopefully, means business. It is anticipated that as a bigger neighbour it would respect Dhaka’s status as a small but sovereign country, and solve the outstanding problems with sagacity and generosity. We are hoping for a new beginning—a new dawn, a new breakthrough—in Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relations.
Suffice to state that for a new beginning the outstanding problems must be dealt with most judiciously, and the sensitive and emergent issue of transit/transhipment/transit corridor negotiated with due legal/ administrative and numerous other considerations. First, let us see how the outstanding issues can be tackled with a win-win situation for both.
THE Indo-Bangladesh border management problems are ticklish. Nonetheless, they need to be resolved. Demarcation of the remaining 6.5 kilometres at different Indo-Bangladesh sectors should be executed with extreme equity and fairness. Take the example of demarcation of the two-kilometre border in the Belonia sector. We feel that it should be guided by the 1974 treaty, which stipulated that ‘the line of separation between India and Bangladesh should be defined along the fix lines and not shifting lines, which happen as a shift of the common rivers along the border.’ Thus, the issue should be settled along the 1974 position when the agreement was signed between the two governments. Otherwise, Bangladesh would lose 40 acres of Muhirir char, which rightfully belongs to Bangladesh and is needed for its territorial security. Doykhata has been settled with mutual satisfaction and three kilometres at Latirtila should also be demarcated with the help of both map and traverse records. While dwelling on the topic, it is pertinent to point out about the total silence of both Bangladesh and India not to raise the issue of drawing the demarcation line long the south-western Hariabhaga river, which will affect Bangladesh’s maritime border if it is not done along the river’s midstream. It should be raised on the sidelines of the summit.
We find from the newspaper reports that substantial progress with regards to exchange of enclaves and adversely possessed land has been achieved. However, the modalities for such exchange have not yet been made public. It is assumed that it is being carried out in line with the 1974 treaty. In such eventualities, the loss of territory (around 10,000 acres without compensation) and the gain of territory (around 1,859.20 acres) for Bangladesh are to be clearly recorded and compensated. Moreover, it is exceedingly important to make sure that there would not be any repetition of the history of the Tin Bigha corridor fiasco, especially in the context of the Indian Supreme Court’s clear verdict that there is no impediment for India to ratify the 1974 treaty since it has signed the Nehru-Noon pact of 1958 and ratified the treaty through the ninth amendment to the constitution (Mizanur Rahman Khan, Prothom Alo, July 20).
Some of the border issues not only need equity and fairness but has to be looked from humanitarian grounds. India’s erection of barbed-wire fencing, whose several parts are electrified, around Bangladesh, Mr Prime Minister, is not a solution to prevent alleged Bangladeshi intrusion. The predicament of border people who have lived side by side for generations and forged family links should be specially treated on humanitarian grounds like review of the visa regime, and relaxation of the conditions for cross-border movements of citizens of both countries. The introduction of special transit pass for the border people could be a solution. Dhaka should also have assurances about having no fences along the border that runs through Sundarban. Another humanitarian concern is the killing of innocent Bangladeshis by the Border Security Force of India. Hundreds have been killed by BSF shooting. Now that the BSF has been ordered to use rubber bullets instead, they are now killing innocent Bangladeshis by stoning. It seems that the BSF is not that seriously concerned about the issue. Otherwise how could they stone a young Bangladeshi to death while the Indian home minister was visiting Bangladesh? How very spurious that even on the eve of Mr Manmohan Singh’s visit, one Bangladeshi has been stoned to death by Indian border security forces. This must stop. The figure must come to zero.
Water sharing of common rivers
BANGLADESH and India share 57 common rivers out of which 54 originate from India. Finding a mutually agreed formula and mechanism to share the common rivers water has been, like the border disputes, equally difficult. India as an upper riparian country, in defiance of international laws, has been depriving Bangladesh for its rightful share of common rivers water despite the fact that Bangladesh’s very existence depends on regular supply of water. As a result, as a lower riparian country, Bangladesh depends on India’s cooperation in getting the needed supply of water. Delhi has dealt with this problem on one-to-one basis instead of a comprehensive water sharing arrangement, which is intimidating for Bangladesh. Bangladesh is also worried about India’s proposed river-linking project and building of Tipaimukh dam both of which would have devastating impacts on Bangladesh. Although the Indian side says they would not take any steps detrimental to Bangladesh’s interest, the people are not fully assured. In the upcoming summit, concrete (written) assurances like that the projects are not even in their feasibility planning are needed. During the summit, however, Bangladesh and India would sign two treaties on the sharing of Teesta and Feni rivers.
The history of the Teesta barrage is quite lengthy. It was constructed by Bangladesh in 1990s to irrigate drought-prone areas of northwest Bangladesh through a network of canals for crop production. The impact of the barrage has been enormous in terms of socioeconomic benefits for the local people as well as significant increase in food production. Later, due to a barrage built by India on Teesta at Gozaldoba, 60 kilometres upstream, and its unilateral withdrawal of water from the Teesta through a network of canals, which are also augmented by water from the Mahananda, to south-western area part of West Bengal during the lean period, the flow in Bangladesh has come down to 1,000 cusecs from 8,000 cusecs. The scheme has completely devastated Bangladesh’s Teesta Barrage Project area. The crux of the problem is that during the lean period 16,000 cusecs and 8,000 cusecs are required by India and Bangladesh respectively and how the total need of 24,000 cusecs (16,000+8,000) of water can be shared with mutual satisfaction. Three things are important in this regard: (a) fixing of the timing of lean period, which is from September-October to March-April when the water flow is down to 1,000 cusecs at Teesta barrage; (b) determination of the apportionment point from among three stations: i) Godaldoba: Indian side of the barrage; (ii) Kownia: downstream in Bangladesh in between Teesta barrage and the extreme southern point of Teesta; (iii) Fatikchari: extreme southern point of Teesta in Bangladesh before it joins Brahmaputra. c) determination of the ratio of water.
India wants Fatikchari to be the apportionment point. It argues that the joining of two small rivers—Leesh and Geesh—right below the Teesta barrage, increases the volume of Teesta. So, Fatikchari should be the apportionment point. If Indian argument is accepted then Bangladesh would suffer because of a very unique nature of Teesta. What happens is while travelling through Bangladesh lots of Teesta water is absorbed in the soil. So by the time it reaches Fatikchari its volume becomes much less than it is at Gozaldoba. India also argues for Fatikchari to indicate that the waters of the Leesh and Geesh compensate for India’s withdrawal of the Mahananda’s water. As discussed above, that is not the reality. Bangladesh should insist on having apportionment location at Gozaldoba (from the conversation with the eminent water resources development expert Dr Ainun Nishat).
Also, in order to ensure Bangladesh’s food security and environment, Bangladesh should insist on having the following:
Determination of lean period which should be from August/September to March/April.
Godaldoba as the apportionment point.
Ratio should be 20 per cent (for the river)/35 per cent (for India)/45 per cent (for Bangladesh) based on the argument that since ‘the irrigation command is overwhelming within the Bangladesh territory; it should get lion’s share of the water’ (Abbas, The Ganges Treaty, 1984). Mr Dev Mukherjee, a former high commissioner of India to Bangladesh, in a recent interview with the Prothom Alo, also expressed similar opinion (Prothom Alo, August 18). Moreover, the unilateral withdrawal of water from the Mahananda by India into its Teesta irrigation canal should also be weighed when it comes to sharing of the Teesta water.
There should be a guarantee clause ensuring minimum flow of water during lean period.
The agreement must not be interim; rather, it should be renewable at the end of the each term with further modifications, if needed.
Have a written assurance that India would stop its river-linking project and building of the Tipaimukh dam.
Agreement to share the Feni river (a small river) is not that contentious. India wants to withdraw water from the Feni for supplying drinking water to Tripura. However, when the signing the treaty, Dhaka should keep in mind that the Feni is a very small river. So, even a small amount of withdrawal may affect its down-flow. Apportionment of water, therefore, should be cautiously calculated and it should insist on having strict monitoring mechanisms are at place.
ANOTHER controversial issue has been whether or not Dhaka should grant transit/transhipment/transport corridor to India, which has been its longstanding demand, to have access to New Delhi’s almost landlocked north-eastern provinces. During the Delhi summit, Dhaka agreed to provide one-time transport corridor from Ashuganj to Agartala for Palatana 756MW power project in Tripura, and as many as fifteen land and rail transit routes were also identified for India. The main argument in favour of granting transits to India has been the huge economic benefits Bangladesh would accrue in transit, administrative and other compensatory fees. It was also apprehended that the act would enhance the SAARC spirit as well as global connectivity.
Since then a lot of controversies regarding the correct definition of these facilities as well as whether or not transit fees should be imposed have arisen. India’s demand that, as land routes are transits, they should be treated under the World Trade Organisation’s Article V, which would enable it to get a waiver in transit fees, is not acceptable. The fact is that these routes are not transits because, according to the WTO, transit routes go from one country through another country to a third country, whereas the routes going from one country through another country to its country of origin are transport corridors. This has been clearly discerned from the declaration of ONGC, who signed the memorandum on behalf of the Indian government for the Ashuganj-Akhaura route, that the route indeed is a transport corridor.
The question is: are these routes transits/transhipment/transport corridors? The definitions of both transit and transit corridors are stated clearly in the above. Why then the government of Bangladesh is giving such mixed messages and creating controversies? It is assumed that Bangladesh falls in line with India for two reasons: (i) it is apprehensive that granting of corridors to another country may be perceived as impingement on Dhaka’s sovereignty; (ii) it feels that since India has already declared its intention of not paying the transit fee, it is better to term them transits, and prepare the country not to nurture the dreams of earning an anticipated crores of foreign exchange.
It is, thus, most sincerely hoped that the definitions of 15 routes identified routes for facilitating Indian transports should be determined as per the definition of the WTO. If they are transport corridors like the ONGC’s declaration, then Article V of the WTO would not be applicable in these cases. With this realistic definition in mind both the countries should negotiate bilaterally the terms and conditions as well as the necessary fees including the transit fees under which these transports would ply through Bangladesh.
It is expected that both sides —
would ensure that security and sovereignty of Bangladesh are protected
have necessary guidelines for transportations
have necessary transit, administrative and service fees
have necessary fees on environmental impact (already 2,000 trees have been felled in order to widen Akhaura-Agartala route). For example, a hefty environmental fee is charged by of Switzerland for the negative environmental impact on the Alps due to the carbon emission of the passing transports;
have satisfactory fees in compensation for acquisition of land for broadening the road.
consider health issues, and mandatory requirement of a health certificate by the vehicle drivers.
lay down clear guideline for Nepal and Bhutan’s transit routes to reach Khulna and Mongla ports.
Unlike the testing of feeder canal of Farakka barrage and subsequent unilateral withdrawal of Ganges water, limit the Ashuganj-Akhura transport corridor to one-time use only.
Unlike the memorandum signed in the Akhaura-Agartala case, make treaties of transits/corridors public.
BANGLADESH and India has a staggering trade imbalance to the extent of $3 billion in formal and $2.5 billion in informal trade. This issue should be addressed seriously. The main reasons for such huge trade gap are following:
The volume of Bangladesh’s export is very low in comparison with India’s.
India has imposed tariff and non-tariff barriers preventing Bangladesh’s products to enter into India’s market.
India has a long list of sensitive products.
Informal trade, which is highly skewed in favour of India, deprives Bangladesh from its revenues.
However, exports to India have recently experienced a significant rise. Despite this increase, the trade imbalance is highly lopsided.
In the joint communiqué it has been declared that New Delhi would remove tariff and non tariff barriers and reduce the sensitive list. India would allow duty free access of Bangladeshi products in Indian market. In this respect India would support to standardise the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution in order to strengthen land custom.
Let us hope that the following would be taken into consideration:
Realisation of the promises in joint communiqué.
Removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers.
India should have a bilateral free-trade agreement with Bangladesh, a least developed country.
Complete elimination of products from the sensitive list.
Elimination of rampant smuggling across the border.
Institution of supportive measures so that exports could increase at a much faster pace.
Facilitations of Indo-Bangladesh joint ventures.
TO END our discussion, we can only state that the treaties signed by the prime ministers of both countries should create win-win situations for both countries. This is a golden opportunity for both, especially for India, to instil trust in the hearts and minds of the people in Bangladesh, which in the final analysis, forms the lasting foundation for a cordial and friendly relationship.
By - Professor Dilara Choudhury.